Abel Corver

Many complex behaviors, from language to navigation, consist of the sequential execution of smaller behavioral subunits. It remains poorly understood how animal brains orchestrate such sequences simultaneously at short and long timescales. Spider web-making offers a particularly interesting model in which to study complex sequential behaviors. Orb webs are built in five sequential and distinct phases of construction that collectively span multiple hours, requiring the coordination of subsecond motor actions at the multihour timescale. In the Gordus lab, in collaboration with my co-mentor, Sridevi Sarma, we have developed automated leg and web tracking algorithms that allow us to reconstruct the precise sequencing of motor actions, as well as identify the touch events between the spider and the silk that triggered a given action. These analyses have shown that the geometric stages of web- making emerge due to variations in the transition patterns among smaller motor actions (e.g., leg sweeps, locomotion), and that the triggers for these motor actions are not fixed across stages but are context-dependent. These insights suggest considerable cognitive ability in the spider, and lay the groundwork for probing the neural circuit mechanisms that give rise to these behavioral rules.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins for my graduate work because of the quality of faculty research and the department’s track record of rigorous graduate education. My initial visits to the school also conveyed a friendly department culture, which has made Johns Hopkins a great place to work these past years.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I am incredibly grateful to receive the Bae Gyo Jung Award for our research. Web-making is an incredibly beautiful behavior, and like any research project, the technical execution of our analysis posed interesting challenges along the way. It is rewarding to know that the results of our efforts are of interest to the broader scientific community.

What contributed to your project’s success?

Our approach to understanding spider web-making combines insights from previous careful manual observations and recent advances in computational tools for modeling animal behavior. This project would not have been possible without my adviser, Andrew Gordus, setting out to establish our spider, U. diversus, as a behavioral, genetic and neural circuit model system, as well as his mentorship over the years. It has been a pleasure to interact with faculty members who have diverse expertise across departments and institutions, from my co-supervisor Sridevi Sarma’s expertise in control theory (a collaboration supported by the Johns Hopkins University Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute) to the invaluable guidance of my thesis committee, consisting of Christopher Potter (Department of Neuroscience), Jeremiah Cohen (Allen Institute for Neural Dynamics) and Vivek Jayaraman (Janelia Research Campus).

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I think Young Investigators’ Day is a great tradition. It recognizes the significant efforts invested by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in their research. I am excited to hear more about the work of my peers face to face and to share our own work.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

I have been greatly influenced and inspired by discussions with fellow lab mates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at Johns Hopkins and collaborating institutions, which have broadened my interests and appreciation for research areas that were previously unfamiliar to me. These connections will continue to influence my thinking and research going forward.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am planning to complete my dissertation in the coming year and will continue to work toward an understanding of arthropod cognition as a postdoctoral researcher.

Tell me something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

Before I became interested in neuroscience, I completed a bachelor’s degree in linguistics. Human language is a particularly impressive example of a cognitive ability that is internal-state driven, meaning our language faculty uses different forms of short-term memory to generate sequences with hierarchical structure largely unconstrained by events in our sensory environment. There is a large gap in our understanding and imagination of the types of brain circuits that are capable of implementing such computations. Though my current work on arthropods may seem far removed from such questions, I believe many complex behaviors can be understood in terms of smaller “building blocks.” Understanding such building blocks across model systems will likely yield general insight into the computational mechanisms brain circuits use to implement cognitive behavior.